Published in Development, 1990:3/4, pp. 170-73 by the Society for International Development

by David C. Korten

The decade from which we have just emerged, the 1980s, was a time of growing recognition that we live in a world in profound crisis--a world of increasing poverty, collapsing ecological systems, and pervasive communal violence. An awareness is dawning that these are not isolated problems. They represent three seemingly distinct, yet interrelated global crises. Each is to some extent both cause and consequence of the others. Each points to important institutional failures, including the failure of four decades of official international development commitment. These crises are lead indicators that our institutions and our development strategies have not kept pace with our changing global reality.

A Turning Point in Human History

Historians may well look back on the 1980s as one of the most significant and abrupt turning points in human history. The decade represents a historical moment in which society passed beyond the critical threshold of earth's tolerance for the burdens human activity placed on its ecosystem. The result is a crisis that cannot be resolved by the fine tuning of economic policy. It requires a rapid and fundamental transformation of our institutions and values driven by an alternative vision of development and the human future.

The decade of the 80s not only revealed the need for this transformation, but also set the stage for its realization. In 1988, the environment became a media event and the veil of our collective ecological innocence was lifted. In 1989, the communist empire in Eastern Europe collapsed and the rationale for much of the North's massive military establishment evaporated almost overnight. Democracy became the media event of that year. The failure of the visible hand of the state as the answer to the human dilemma was ruthlessly exposed. Each of these events represented a crucial step that created new possibilities for human society.

Blaming the Victim

As former socialists began turning to the invisible hand of the market as their hope for prosperity, capitalism, with unseeming haste, boldly proclaimed its victory, assuring us that the free market would save the world from poverty and restore the environment through economic growth. Among others, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many of the world's most influential political leaders told us that poverty is the root cause of environmental destruction because "Poverty reduces people's capacity to use resources in a sustainable manner;"(1) that redistribution of existing incomes is politically infeasible and the only way to reduce poverty is through overall increases in economic output; and that future growth in the economies of poor countries depends on accelerating growth in the rich countries. In short, according to those who dictate economic policy, we best serve the poor and the environment by helping the rich become richer.

The initial premise of this argument is, however, seriously flawed. A wealthy person typically consumes many times more resources than does a poor person and generates commensurately greater waste. The wealthy, to meet the resource demands of their extravagant wants, have commandeered the more productive and environmentally stable resources for their own use and driven the poor to the margins of the ecology for their subsistence. This does not make the poor the cause of the problem. Such claims are a classic case of blaming the victim.

Both history and logic make it self-evident that the environmental problem cannot be resolved by further increasing the economic power of the rich and thereby their demand for still more ecological resources. To the contrary, a resolution depends on reducing the environmental resource demands of the rich to allow the poor sufficient ecological space to produce a decent and sustainable livelihood in a resource constrained world.

Three Painful Options

No matter how much we may wish it were otherwise, we cannot escape a brutal reality. Economic growth, as we have known it, is highly correlated with stress on the environment. While steps are being taken to weaken that correlation, we have yet to eliminate it. Available evidence suggests that the world's over-consumers are now stressing the global ecology to its limits.

This leaves global society with three basic policy options.

1. Press for continued conventional economic growth in both North and South, hope the overwhelming evidence that we are overloading our ecosystem is false, and risk the consequences of accelerating ecological system failure.

2. Seek to slow economic growth and attempt to maintain the status quo in the allocation of earth's environmental resources--including the gap between over and under-consumers.

3. Promote a global transformation of human values and institutions that dramatically reduces the demands that the over-consumers of both North and South place on the environment and gives the poor (the under-consumers) precedence in the use of the resulting resource dividend to achieve a decent human existence.

Option one will likely push us to ecological collapse. Option two will almost certainly destroy the legitimacy of our social institutions and spark a massive escalation of random violence by those who are denied hope of social and economic justice. Option three is the only truly pragmatic choice, as it is the only choice in which anyone wins. In fact everyone stands to gain. Yet, the difficulties of its implementation can scarcely be exaggerated. It requires a fundamental transformation of our vision of development and of the institutions and policies by which we approach it.

Competing Visions

Most of us have been conditioned throughout our lives to a growth-centered vision of development that equates human progress with increases in economic output. Our political leaders and most of the institutions that set the directions of economic policy have been similarly conditioned. Prevailing views of development policy derive directly from this vision. It gives us a shared conventional wisdom that accepts a number of assumptions largely without examination. For example:

  • Poverty results from inadequate growth, which in turn results from inadequate capital investment.
  • Economic efficiency is enhanced by increasing specialization, scale of operation, and international trade, and by removing restraints on the free operation of the market.
  • The contribution of a person to society is measured primarily by his or her participation as producer and consumer in the marketplace.
  • When raw material inputs command prices above their marginal cost of extraction, it is an indication of market failure.

In pursuit of the growth-centered vision, Southern countries are advised to remove all barriers to the free flow of goods and capital across their boarders and give priority to export production. The United States is taking this line of reasoning a step further and is attempting through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to turn these prescriptions into international law. The implications are ominous.

History has demonstrated that the market is a powerful and essential mechanism for mediating the allocation of society's resources. But history has also demonstrated that the market's limitations must be openly acknowledged and compensated. For example, the market responds best to the relatively short-term interests of those who control wealth. It gives no voice to the poor and the environment.

When a nation gives up its right to regulate the flow of goods and capital across its borders, it essentially gives up the right to regulate its own economy. Its own industry finds itself competing with industries located in countries where subsistence wages, sub-standard working conditions, and an absence of environmental regulation are the norm.(2)

The transnational corporation is left with complete freedom of action. Impersonal, stateless, and increasingly unaccountable to anyone, it is the ultimate absentee owner. It has little stake in the health and well-being of either the local people or their ecology and is free to move when more attractive opportunities are presented elsewhere. Small local producers with a tie to the community find themselves engaged in a highly unequal competition for local markets and resources. Even tax revenues are lost as the transnational shifts local profits, through accounting manipulations, to other jurisdictions.

Growing numbers of citizen groups around the world are recognizing the need to orient development policies toward an alternative vision that is people-centered rather than growth-centered. This vision is grounded in principles that lead to quite different policy choices and outcomes. For example:

  • The first priority in the use of earth's resources should be to allow all people an opportunity to produce a basic livelihood for themselves and their families.
  • Those who own or control productive resources have a stewardship responsibility to society and to future generations.
  • Current generations have no right to engage in levels of nonessential consumption that deprive future generations of the possibility of sustaining decent human living standards.
  • Every individual has the right to be a productive contributing member of family, community and society.
  • Sovereignty resides in the people. The authority of the state is granted by the people and therefore may be withdrawn by them.
  • Local economies should be diversified and reasonably self-reliant in producing for the basic needs of local residents.
  • Localities should depend on trade relationships to obtain those basic needs that cannot reasonably be satisfied through local production and for goods that are not essential to the basic health and well-being of the community.
  • People have a right to a voice in making the decisions that influence their lives, and decision making should be as close to the level of individual, family and community as possible.
  • Local decisions should reflect a global perspective and an acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship.
  • International agreements should facilitate ready access to technologies that enhance the sustainable productive use of environmental resources by all who might benefit from them.

The people-centered vision embraces a strong sense of community and of pride in place and heritage. Its adherents commonly speak of participatory political and economic democracy grounded in strong grass-roots organizations. Increasing the opportunity and ability of people to control and use local resources to meet their own needs becomes the locus of development action. Policy action is directed to this end.

Development as a People's Movement

Forging a new collective consciousness around an alternative to the growth-centered development vision means creating a new way of thinking and acting among people on a global scale. It is an ambitious agenda for which most of our formal institutions, as creations of the growth-centered vision, are poorly equipped. Indeed these institutions inhibit such transformation by rewarding only behavior consistent with the established vision. They have a capacity for adaptive change within the assumptions of that vision, but reject transformational changes that challenge it.

The leadership for societal transformation must necessarily come from individual citizen volunteers whose values and sense of their own empowerment free them from dependence on conventional economic and political rewards. Raising the consciousness of the global citizenry and mobilizing people's inherent capacity for voluntary action in the cause of transformation may be the single most important task of the professional development worker of the 1990s. The process must lead hundreds of millions of the earth's citizens to confront the contradictions between their own politics and lifestyles, and the realities of life on a finite planet; to clarify their values, their sense of what is truly important in their lives; and to recognize their individual and collective strength and potential for constructively transforming the institutions that dominate their lives. The process must engage rich and poor alike, and embrace the linkages between local and global realities.

Authentic people-centered development cannot be achieved by governments on behalf of the people. It must be achieved by the people for themselves. As with the other great social advances of our time, it must be achieved through the practice of citizen democracy, through a people's movement driven by a compelling social vision.(3) Indeed transformational change of the scope and depth required will be possible only through a grand alliance of the environmental, peace, human rights, women's rights, and consumer rights movements--all of which depend for the realization of their social vision on a similar global transformation of values and institutions. Voluntary organizations of all nationalities and representing many differing social commitments have a central role to play in building and supporting this alliance.

The Development Agenda

The logic of our environmental and social reality leaves us little choice but to define the development agenda of the 1990s in terms of an institutional transformation aimed at a radical reallocation of environmental resources from non-essential to essential uses. Given the consequences of doing otherwise, we cannot start by asking, "What is politically feasible?" We must be coldly pragmatic and ask, "What is necessary for global survival?" We must then work to make the answers to that question politically feasible.

The following are essential elements of such an agenda for citizen action.

Peace and demilitarization: Military expenditures consume a substantial portion of earth's ecological resources for purposes that contribute little to human well-being. State sponsored violence, including state sponsored terrorism and insurgency, is one of the world's leading causes of human suffering. The transformation movement should work to create a public norm that repudiates war and other forms of state sponsored violence as instruments of national policy. It should also press for a drastic reduction in arms expenditures, international trade in arms, and international military assistance.

Life styles: Ultimately each community and each nation must learn to live within its own environmental means without exporting its environmental costs to others. In the overconsuming nations the movement should work for a drastic reduction in total national consumption of environmental resources leading to the virtual elimination of dependence on imports of environmentally extractive resources and the export of wastes and pollution. This will require personal, community, and national level actions aimed at dramatic changes in life-styles, recycling practices, and the organization of agriculture and industry.

Asset ownership: All people have a basic human right to have access to the productive resources required to achieve a humanly decent livelihood. They also bear an obligation to serve as stewards of these resources. Wherever practical, people, in their role as producers, should own or control the assets on which their livelihood depends. Such control should not be vested in either a massive, impersonal bureaucratic state, or a stateless, non-accountable transnational corporation. The movement should work for the redistribution of ownership and control over environmental and other productive assets to reduce absentee ownership, advance economic democracy, and promote local control. It should also seek to establish in both public consciousness and the law the principle that rights to the ownership and use of environmental and other productive resources carry an obligation of stewardship.

International political and economic relationships: Sovereignty resides in the citizen, not in the state. No government that imposes and maintains its rule by force merits acceptance as the legitimate representative of a subjugated people in the community of nations. Transformation depends on citizen action within self-governing communities consistent with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their rights to exercise this responsibility must be recognized and protected. The movement should seek a public consensus that full diplomatic recognition and UN membership are due only to states whose leaders are freely elected and protect the basic human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should further seek to assure that agreements regarding international trade and investment relationships: (1) encourage and enable local self-reliance in meeting basic needs; and (2) assure the right of citizens through their own freely elected governments to regulate their own economic affairs and to set minimum standards for their health, safety, and environment.

Advanced Technology: Information has the distinctive quality of being a resource that is non-polluting and is not depleted by its use. Advanced information-based technologies are an essential key to improving the quality of life while reducing our collective burden on the ecology. While necessary incentives to insure continued research to develop such technologies and their application must be preserved, the world's people cannot allow a few countries or corporations to monopolize the fruits of that research. The movement should seek reforms in international law and practice assuring that beneficial technologies are widely shared and readily available.

In September 1990 the world's leaders met to sign a convention guaranteeing the rights of the world's children. It is a worthy commitment. That convention, however, will be meaningless without broad recognition that a great deal more than the provision of vaccines, oral rehydration packets and other services is required to assure the right of the world's children to a fulfilling life.

Nor will these rights be assured by either the visible hand of the state or the invisible hand of the market. We, the people of planet earth--rich and poor, educated and uneducated, North and South, East and West--through our individual and collective action, have created the crisis that condemns millions of children to misery and death, and threatens the future of us all. We must resolve it in the same way, by personally and collectively assuming responsibility for our own actions and their consequences for life, present and future, on spaceship earth.

The development agenda of the 1990s must be an agenda of transformation--aimed at creating an institutional framework for a new type of development that enriches the human spirit, builds community, enhances economic justice, and preserves the life sustaining systems of our planet. The leadership toward that end must be provided through voluntary citizen action on a massive scale.


1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 49. Similar statements may be cited from reports of the World Bank, USAID, and other international agencies.

2. See Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989); and James Robertson, Future Wealth: A New Economics for the 21st Century (London: Cassell Publishers, Ltd., 1990.

3. See Frances Moore Lappe, "Building Citizen Democracy," Institute for Food and Development Policy, 145 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.

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